Help yourself by helping others
We all want to be healthier and feel better. Dedicating our time to help others can provide a wealth of mental and physical health benefits. Science has shown that volunteers can enjoy improved relationships, lower stress levels, and higher overall life satisfaction.
What if the key to a happier and healthier life was simple and readily available to everyone? Of course, eating well and staying physically active are essential. But the simple act of doing something for someone else can also have a positive and lasting impact on your own health—including your heart health.
While volunteering is a worthy pursuit all by itself, it doesn’t hurt to know that the benefits loop back to you in many ways, including your own heart health. Researchers have recently found a strong correlation between volunteering and a reduced risk of high blood pressure.
The study by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in the US tracked more than 1,100 adults over a four-year period to determine what effect volunteerism might have on their blood pressure and various social and psychological factors. They found that those who reported at least 200 hours of volunteer work per year were 40 percent less likely to develop hypertension than those who didn’t volunteer.
Volunteering plays an important part in a healthy lifestyle—people who volunteer tend to feel better and more in control of their health. In one study, more than 75 percent of those who volunteered indicated that volunteering made them feel physically better and that they felt their health had improved over the previous year.
Volunteers are more likely to seek out information on their health, making them more engaged patients. Volunteers with chronic health issues are better able to manage their illness by staying active and keeping their mind focused on other tasks.
Researchers use the term “helper’s high” to describe the feeling we get when we perform a good deed. This positive feeling is experienced when endorphins are released; it can reduce pain and lower stress levels. The bottom line: we feel good when we do good things.
The negative effect of stress on our mental health is well known. The health benefits of volunteering include helping to reduce stress while increasing self-esteem and satisfaction with life. The UK National Health Service recommends giving back to the community as one of five steps to mental well-being.
In addition to lower stress levels, volunteers report improved moods and an enriched sense of purpose. Volunteers are more likely to report feeling calm and peaceful, and they score higher on a variety of measures of emotional well-being, including personal independence, capacity for rich interpersonal relationships, and overall life satisfaction.
I’ve experienced these benefits myself. A few years ago, I developed a health issue after complications from surgery, resulting in sporadic episodes of excruciating pain, lasting hours at a time. While I was upset and frustrated about my situation, volunteering on the board of directors for a community organization helped keep my mind off my personal challenges. During my first summer as head of the fundraising committee, I was able to refocus my energy into new ways to drive funding for the organization.
I found ways to work through my issues while supporting my community, even attending a board meeting via conference call while suffering a mild pain episode. My fellow volunteers were extremely supportive, and hearing their concerned voices over the phone was a great comfort to me. Spending time with a group of engaged and energized people inspired me to stay positive and active, while appreciating all the good things in my life.
If you don’t have a volunteer story yet, or you haven’t volunteered in a while, keep the following advice in mind while you consider your options.
Choosing the right opportunity is key. Paula Speevak, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada, suggests starting with some self-exploration—understanding what matters to you, what brings out the best in you, and how you might want to contribute.
Don’t forget to think about what you want to get out of volunteering.
“Volunteering is a two-way relationship,” Speevak says. “While helping others and shaping the community you want to live in, you are also growing and bettering yourself.”
Consider your personal goals for learning and development. This will help you find the right volunteering experience for your own personal growth and ensure that your new position is a fulfilling match. Many volunteer websites offer online tools and resources, including opportunity databases and assessment tools, to help you find the right opportunity.
Everyone has skills that can help a community organization. Some volunteers prefer to stick to what they know, while others want to try something new.
The old adage “too much of a good thing” also applies to volunteering. Running yourself ragged with multiple commitments you can’t meet is not the answer for better health.
Speevak recommends starting small and being honest with yourself about how much time you can commit. “Don’t be afraid to test things out before making a full commitment.”
Consider starting out with a single event or project instead of a long-term commitment. Once you’re comfortable with the organization and have a better idea of how much time you can reasonably give, you can decide what works best for you.
When you find an organization that interests you, start with some basic research to see what opportunities are available. Review the volunteer policy, then take the leap and get in touch. Remember, this is your chance to get to know the organization, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Find out about upcoming information sessions, events, or board meetings for a chance to meet members and other volunteers. If you and the organization are a fit, you’ll need to go through the screening process, which may involve a background check. This can take time, so be patient.
Enjoy the experience
Jump in and have fun—but don’t be afraid to speak up if something isn’t working. It’s important to feel good and enjoy what you’re doing.
If things don’t work out for you, don’t give up on the idea of volunteering. As Speevak says, “There’s something out there for everyone. Don’t be discouraged if the first attempt doesn’t work out.”
Speak to friends and family with similar values and interests. Recommendations can help you find the right opportunity more quickly.
Not ready to take the leap alone? Find a friend who is willing to join you.
Look for community events that interest you. It’s a great way to learn about an organization without making a commitment.
Take advantage of the tools and resources available to find the right opportunity for you.
Provides national leadership and expertise on volunteering. The website includes links to volunteer centres in your area.
An online tool that helps match volunteers with opportunities in their own area of interest as well as their own geographical area.
Offers opportunities—they call them microvolunteering opportunities—to give from your own home, on demand, and on your own terms.